Still Learning

I love learning new words and increasing the precision with which I use familiar words. Perhaps that is why I am a word game addict – it goes with the editorial territory. I’ll never forget playing the dictionary game with my father, who was a well-read engineer, because he would always come up with wonderful and crazy definitions for words. My understanding of the actual definition of triptych, along with some humorous variations, comes from playing the dictionary game, not any art history classes. And as my children have grown into adults, I am happy that they are literate and have great vocabularies, but I do get a little annoyed when they beat me in Scrabble.

One of the books on my editorial bookshelf is Who’s Whose: A No-Nonsense Guide to Easily Confused Words (Philip Gooden). If you have ever been nervous about using the words “affect” or “effect” in a sentence, or if you are uncertain whether you want to assure or ensure someone’s safety, then this is the book for you. Along with clear examples and definitions, he rates the “embarrassment factor” of incorrect usage. It’s the kind of book that those of us who are word people can get lost in. I might pick up the book to reassure myself about correct usage, then get distracted as I move from assure/ensure/insure to the difference between auger and augur.

While learning new words and playing word games are both fun activities (for me), the underlying reason to keep learning words is to increase precision in communication. I don’t use obscure words to impress, but often a  carefully selected word can make the difference between good prose and great prose. And when I am editing someone else’s writing, I will often comment about word choice and suggest they choose more interesting words if their writing sounds flat and predictable.

Learn a new word this week – or look up a word you are unsure of and hone your communication skills. How about biannual and biennial?

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